By David F. Marley
A little less than two years ago—on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009—the most infamous incident until that time involving Somali pirates ended joyfully for America when Captain Richard Phillips of the container-ship Maersk Alabama was rescued from captivity at the hands of four gun-toting Somali pirates. U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters concealed on the guided-missile destroyer Bainbridge had expertly killed three of his captors with a single well-aimed volley, allowing for the fourth to be arrested without resistance. Captain Phillips and the rest of the Mersk Alabama’s brave crew were then flown home to a euphoric reception, and eight days later the lone surviving gunman was paraded off a helicopter—past an array of waiting TV cameras—to be arraigned on 10 counts of piracy, punishable by death.
Since that time, interest in the thorny issue of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean has faded out of the consciousness of America’s media and the public at large, to be supplanted by other more current stories and news-cycles from different corners of the world. Yet reports of ship hijackings continued almost weekly, with hundreds of foreign sailors being held hostage off the bleak, lawless, sun-baked stretch of shoreline in central Somalia. It is a documented fact that in the year immediately following that memorable Mersk Alabama triumph—seemingly a setback for the pirates—the number of their attempted assaults increased, not decreased, and they significantly widened their operational-range, netting almost 50 vessels and more than 1,000 new hostages in 2010 alone.
Their dogged determination in such a pursuit should come as no surprise, given their lack of any other source of income. The utter collapse of Somalia’s ineffectual federal government has seen that patchwork of a nation dissolve into an even more fragmented agglomeration of autonomous regions and tribal fiefdoms, with local leaders more responsive to ancient clan ties than to any central authority. Vulnerable and defenceless within this power vacuum, the dirt-poor fishing ports along central Somalia’s coastline were callously ignored while foreign fleets swept bare the meager fish stocks and international waste-disposal firms dumped tens of millions of tons of toxic materials into their waters. Seeing their scanty livelihoods disappearing, fishermen began attacking the intruders closest inshore, then broadened their forays farther out into the international shipping lanes, eventually assaulting passing merchantmen of every nationality.
Factions fighting the relentless civil wars raging elsewhere in that strife-torn country had already demonstrated how such prizes could be anchored with impunity in Somalia’s territorial waters, as ransoms for their release were extorted from overseas. Soon, this practice became an organized business, captive vessels lying within plain sight of shore for weeks or months on end with tacit collusion from unsalaried local officials. The crews of these captive vessels were supplied on credit by struggling town merchants. The eventual payment of any large sum would be claimed by the pirate syndicate, with shares divided amongst all interested parties. These payments represented a significant infusion of capital into such a downtrodden economy. Not even public proscriptions against piracy issued by dour Muslim clerics, offended by the worldly allure of such ill-gotten wealth, could curtail the growing frequency of pirate sorties.
Today, the underlying root causes behind this predatory business, identified and confirmed by foreign observers and multinational institutions alike, have not begun to be addressed directly, much less resolved. No civil inroads are being contemplated in central Somalia. No local cooperation is being sought from chieftains or elders. No breakthrough is remotely anticipated ashore, and so the unending stream of youthful gunmen will continue to put out to sea.
To circumvent the beefed-up surveillance, defensive countermeasures, and constant ocean patrols sustained in the main shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa by a rotating squadron of West European and international warships and planes, the pirate handlers have begun directing their gunboats farther and farther afield in quest of victims, usually by commandeering a hapless, nondescript vessel to serve as a “mother ship,” which permits them to roam undetected most everywhere on the immense expanse of the Indian Ocean.
It was just such a long-range foray that four Americans unfortunately blundered into, when they were surprised and boarded by a gang of 19 Somali pirates some 270 miles off Oman, while sailing their oceangoing yacht Quest toward the port of Salalah. Again, the U.S. Navy raced to the rescue, arriving in overwhelming force to cow the cornered pirates into heaving-to. Only this time, there was to be no happy ending.
Unlike the hijacking of an oil tanker or cargo ship, in which the pirates' prime bargaining chip is the ship itself, the crew members themselves become the trump card during the seizure of a private vessel. After FBI negotiators decided to seize the first two pirates who had ventured aboard USS Sterett, informing their colleagues on the yacht to send across more willing spokesmen, the crisis suddenly exploded into murder. The pirates slaughtered the four bound Americans, and were in turn either killed or captured.
In the immediate aftermath of these senseless killings, a pirate leader named Farah, speaking by telephone from Bayla in Somalia’s northern semiautonomous region of Puntland, issued the usual vows to avenge the deaths and capture of his comrades. But he then went on to tellingly lament the loss of “the money [he] invested,” even estimating its value at $110,000 in weapons, food, and salaries.
Perhaps the only good that might come out of this sad encounter might be the lesson that attacking American vessels will always be bad business for Somalia’s pirate syndicates, possibly discouraging or at least defusing any future clashes. Since the U.S. Navy always intervenes so rapidly and forcefully—even if hostages should tragically be slain—the pirates and their greedy financiers ashore will come away with… nothing.
David F. Marley is a historian who has conducted extensive primary-source research in Latin America and Europe and currently resides in Canada. He is the author of the 1994 Pirates and Privateers of the Americas, Pirates of the Americas (ABC-CLIO, 2010) and Modern Piracy: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2010).
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